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Google’s YouTube Mea Culpa: Is It Enough?

Apr 12, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Google’s mea culpa for ads appearing alongside extremist video content on YouTube has culminated in promises from the tech giant, including a measure to block ads from channels with fewer than 10,000 views and a new system in which third-party firms will verify ad quality standards.

But to what extent will Google ultimately reassure YouTube advertisers? One approach to assessing the effectiveness of a corporate apology is to view it against the four-stage framework for a successful corporate apology. The framework, based on discovery, explanation, penance and rehabilitation, is from the seminal report, After the Fall: Reintegrating the Corrupt Organization, coauthored by M. Susan Taylor, Smith Chair of Human Resource Management and Organizational Change and co-director of the Center For Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Taylor notes that the discovery stage of Google's apology started positively, with the company voluntarily disclosing its scandal, as opposed to it being exposed by a whistleblower or a public agency’s external investigation. Conversely, regarding this stage, Google has fallen short in terms of its stakeholders concurring on the answer to “What happened?” (Smith professors Wendy Moe and Michael Trusov recently described why the issue has been thorny for YouTube advertisers and why the fallout has been expansive for Google). Such a consensus ideally transitions to the next stage, the explanation of wrongdoing.  

 “Organizations can acknowledge their own wrongdoing, express regret, accept responsibility, offer amends, and even offer an apology,” Taylor says. And prior research shows that an appropriate explanation can “assuage stakeholders’ feelings of disapproval and injustices about or regarding another party’s harmful act that in turn can limit the organization’s punishment.” 

Taylor notes that Google’s Chief Business Officer Phillip Schindler and Europe Chief Matt Brittin both have publicly apologized and promised that Google would deploy artificial intelligence tools to prevent ads from appearing alongside hate speech. “Google further developed a new default setting that prevents ads from being shown against objectionable content, and more powerful ways to exclude sites and YouTube channels across multiple advertising campaigns, and unspecified new ways for brands to ‘fine tune’ where they want their ads to appear,” she adds.

A robust level of action to account for the transgression, according the model, quickens the beginning of the next stage, penance for accepting punishment. For Google, this stage has been manifesting as an advertiser boycott.  Stakeholders view punishment as necessary to the organization restoring its legitimacy and being reintegrated. And while it’s still early to fully ascertain Google’s signs and signals of penance, this stage is complete when the stakeholders view the organization’s acceptance of the penalty as substantially and tangibly demonstrating a change in future behavior,” Taylor says.

The final stage, rehabilitation, includes both internal and external actions and demands that the transgression does not happen again. The effectiveness of Google’s aforementioned measures would apply here. 

In this stage, it’s significant “for the transgressor organization to rely on a strong public relations function to continue to provide the need for dialogue and mutual understanding with its stakeholders,” Taylor says. “The organization must not employ myths and symbols to restore its legitimacy instead of implementing observable actions that appropriately address stakeholder concerns.”

Advertisers, according to the model, would return to YouTube as they become assured of Google’s rehabilitation via its internal and external actions.  One sign of movement on this front is Ireland-based media agency Core Media resuming “limited” and “very controlled” advertising on YouTube.

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The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.